The Brancatelli File



April 1, 1995 -- Travelers can't beg, borrow, or steal a ticket on ValuJet or Vanguard, the nation's hottest new airlines. ValuJet and Vanguard won't sell you one, either. Travelers also may soon find it difficult to buy a ticket on Southwest, the nation's best-known discount carrier, and United, the nation's largest airline.

Don't be confused: those airlines aren't selling out of seats. It's just part of what may be the next great trend in airline travel: flying without a paper ticket. To varying degrees, all four airlines are working to eliminate the traditional ticket. Travelers who book a reservation for a flight now receive a computerized reservation number rather than a paper ticket, and the cost of their transportation is posted to their credit card account.

In fact, travelers don't really need a paper ticket for a seat on an airline flight. After all, renting a hotel room and making a car-rental reservation are both "ticketless" transactions, and have been so for decades. When a traveler or his travel agent books a room or reserves a car, a reservations computer generates a confirmation number. The traveler usually gives that number--or his name--at the hotel's front desk or car-rental counter, produces a credit card, and is given the key to his room or car.

Ticketless airline travel works in much the same way and, however belatedly, it's finally becoming a reality. Atlanta-based ValuJet, created in 1993, and Kansas City-based Vanguard, which launched service last December, have been completely ticketless since they began flying. Southwest began testing ticketless reservations last year, and the carrier is so pleased with the results that a paperless-travel option was scheduled to be available on all its routes beginning January 31. United began offering a ticketless travel system on the United Shuttle last fall, and promises to go ticket-optional across its vast network by this summer.

Airlines have an ulterior motive for attempting to eliminate traditional tickets: The Wall Street Journal estimates the financially strapped airline industry could save $1 billion a year if paper ducats disappeared. As for travelers, they might embrace ticketless airline transportation for an equally practical reason: replacing lost airline tickets is difficult, costly, and time-consuming.

There are two drawbacks to paperless airline travel, however. The elimination of a paper ticket has so far meant the simultaneous disappearance of the advance-boarding pass. That means all travelers must queue up at the airport for a seat assignment--an unpleasant prospect for business travelers who now chose a seat and secure a boarding pass in advance, thus avoiding the long lines at the departure gate. The end of tickets also has meant the end of the paper receipt, which deprives business travelers of a printed record of an important travel-and-entertainment expense.

Until the carriers finesse those annoying glitches, ticketless airline travel will remain a decidedly mixed blessing.

Hertz (800-654-3131) has expanded its "#1 Club Gold" service to more than 590 locations in 21 countries. The service, which costs $50 annually, allows travelers to go directly to their car from their airport arrival gate without stopping at the rental counter or filling out a contract. ... Dozens of Thistle and Mount Charlotte Hotels (800-847-4358) in Britain are offering a $95 per person per night rate through 1995. Based on double occupancy, the rate is guaranteed in dollars, and includes an English breakfast, car rental with unlimited mileage and basic insurance, and all room and service taxes. A minimum stay of four nights at any combination of Thistle and Mount Charlotte hotels is required, and the deal is slightly different for hotels in London.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.